No one could accuse Toronto FC of being boring last year.
A free-wheeling side led by bombastic newcomer Sebastian Giovinco, TFC scored goals by the bucket load in 2015. Unfortunately for the Reds, they gave up an equal amount of goals, effectively rendering the high-octane attack neutral.
And on the rare nights when the attack went cold, the defensive problems stood out, as Toronto found out in its sole playoff game against the Montreal Impact — a 3-0 loss at Stade Saputo.
|SPOTLIGHT: WILL JOHNSON|
The 29-year-old returns to the city of his birth, where he looks to help lead TFC to greater heights at a refurbished BMO Field.
With that defeat still top of mind, TFC's braintrust immediately identified the back line as the key area in need of an overhaul in the offseason. In addition, the goalkeeping position was deemed in need of an upgrade as well, as the Reds looked to drastically alter the identity of its defensive corps, and with it the overall look of the team.
Stalwart 'keepers Joe Bendik and Chris Konopka were sent packing, along with highly paid central defender Ahmed Kantari. Midfielder/defender Jackson, who had a nightmare in the aforementioned playoff defeat, was also deemed surplus to requirements, and his six-figure salary was subsequently slashed from the books.
What was left was a leaner corps of defensive players, alongside a nearly untouched midfield and attack that were the main reason Toronto even got a taste of do-or-die soccer in 2015. With the fat trimmed, TFC's front office went to work.
"We were very specific about the pieces that we wanted to add to our group, and we did so by looking inside the league with guys who know the league, guys that we know as well in terms of their personalities and what they bring to our team both on and off the field," TFC head coach Greg Vanney told Goal Canada. "We know that none of those guys are going to be surprised by anything that is 'MLS,' whether it's travel or anything. So we brought those guys in to add to the quality and the maturity of the team."
The players in question were goalkeeper Clint Irwin, defenders Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour, and central midfielder Will Johnson, all of whom have tasted some degree of success in MLS. All four players project to slot directly into TFC's starting XI after building reputations for themselves elsewhere in the league, and Vanney said all four should help Toronto bring down a goals against record that was tied for the worst in MLS last season.
"If we're a better defending team I think we become an even better attacking team," Vanney explained. "For us it's to maintain as much of that attacking prowess that we had and become a more stable group defensively, and be more consistent in terms of our performance and our outcomes. If we do that then I think we're moving in the right direction."
And while Vanney emphasized the need for the newcomers to bring a greater defensive nous to TFC, he also maintained that continuity from last year's side was extremely important as well.
To that end, the Reds brought back 23 players from the 2015 squad, an unprecedented number that was unimaginable just a couple of years ago.
"The continuity of the group was huge and that's not something that's ever happened in Toronto from the years that I've paid attention to the team, and I think it's important that as you build relationships that guys understand each other and the strengths and weaknesses of each other," Vanney said. "You've got to have that continuity. When you have to go through challenges and you have to go through good and bad times together, that's where teams start to form and start to come together."
One of the challenges Vanney alluded to was an eight-game road trip to start the season. With BMO Field undergoing the second phase of massive multi-year renovation, TFC will be without a home for the first two months of the campaign.
Just like last season, the Reds will start 2016 with an extended road trip. This time the team will be armed with knowledge gained from last year's seven-game roadshow, albeit with no byes built into the schedule like the team had in 2015.
"Whenever the team started to feel like they were starting to get into a rhythm we had a whole week off, so this year we have games coming a little bit faster and more consistently," Vanney said. "One of the things we really wanted to push for this time was not having too many byes [during the opening road trip]."
No matter how the season comes at TFC, the team will need to figure out a better balance between its fearsome attack and porous defense of last year if it is to succeed in 2016. Vanney stressed "consistency" as the key to unlock Toronto's true potential, and he feels that the team now has the pieces to accomplish it.
"This past year we had some really good moments and then we had some moments of let-down," he said. "If we are more consistent as a group both defensively and we maintain our level of attacking ability ... then we'll be where we're supposed to be and where we need to be come the end of the year."
2015 FINISH: Sixth in Eastern Conference (15-15-4), eliminated in knockout round
NOTABLE ADDITIONS: GK Clint Irwin, D Steven Beitashour, D Drew Moor, M Will Johnson, M Tsubasa Endoh
NOTABLE LOSSES: GK Joe Bendik, GK Chris Konopka, D Ahmed Kantari, M Jackson, M Robbie Findley, F Luke Moore
TOP NEWCOMER: Will Johnson. The Canadian international arrives at BMO Field on the back of a strange season with the Portland Timbers that saw him return from an horrific leg injury without a regular spot in the MLS Cup winners' XI despite being the team captain.
Portland's logjam in central midfield allowed Johnson to return to the city of his birth and play alongside longtime friend Michael Bradley in a TFC side chock full of all-star caliber talent. The 29-year-old is expected to take some of the workload off Bradley, allowing Toronto's American captain more freedom to create and connect with the team's attacking players further upfield.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Drew Moor. Tasked with anchoring a rebuilt back line that looks to rebound from an horrendous 2015, Moor will be relied upon to be a vocal leader in front of fellow newcomer Clint Irwin. A no-nonsense vet who has a playing history with head coach Greg Vanney, TFC hopes that Moor can add savvy and organization to a defensive corps that looked anything but last year.
"He's just one of those players who is very comfortable in what he's capable of doing and knows how to play within himself," Vanney said of Moor. "In being that guy, he's able to communicate to others around him. To me that was one thing that was important for our back line, that we really found a communicator."
Expectations continue to rise for the highest-spending club in Major League Soccer, and rightfully so. Toronto looked masterful at times last year — and porous at others — en route to a brief foray into the postseason that no doubt left the team's supporters feeling less than satisfied.
The upcoming campaign promises more from the chronically underachieving side, as the core has remained and is bolstered by additions that have all gotten it done with other clubs in MLS. Most of the key players are squarely within the prime age for top-level soccer players, so it is reasonable to expect a serious run at a championship sooner rather than later.
On paper, Toronto should be no worse than a top-three side in the Eastern Conference, but translating potential into success has always been the problem for TFC.